The Great Exhibition officially begins at Lord's today. It is a cast iron certainty that it will fail to live up to the billing, but then the "Minor Exhibition of Not Much Interest" was hardly the sort of name the marketing chaps were searching for when they were cooking up a label for the long, long summer of cricket that lies ahead.
There is plenty of alluring stuff to come but another Test match between England and West Indies in the first week of May, the earliest an international game has started in this country, probably does not come into that category. The cricket-watching public, a long-suffering breed, appear to be voting with feet which are not heading for the greatest cricket ground in the world, with only 12,388 tickets for the opening day sold by last night.
In the next few days the crowd will pick up slightly – though the ground will be no more than two thirds full at any stage – but that will not erase the feeling this is all too much too soon. Nor has the suspicion been allayed that for all the public pronouncements about the primacy of Test cricket, it is not being reflected in deeds.
Andrew Strauss, England's captain, was as scathing as he could be about the decision of his counterpart, Chris Gayle, to arrive in England only 48 hours before the start of the npower Test. Gayle had delayed leaving South Africa so he could play one more match in the Indian Premier League.
England's newly anointed player of the year also mounted a plea for the integrity of Test cricket but with both players and administrators seemingly playing fast and loose with it there was abundant stony ground on which his words could fall. Between today and the end of September there are seven Test matches, 10 one-day internationals and the World Twenty20 to be negotiated.
"There's a lot to fit in so you have got to start somewhere," Strauss said. "I don't think there's too much. I think what's important is that you can play a lot of cricket but you need a break at some stage. That's something we have got look at, how we get those breaks in and a two-week break, a three-week break is not ideal."
England arrived home from the Caribbean on 5 April and most of them had no more than a fortnight away from the game. Three of the team that will start today have spent the intervening period at the Indian Premier League in South Africa.
It has been almost surreal preparation for a Test series, overshadowing the composition of the teams on another flat Lord's wicket, and the fact that England should be expected comfortably to regain the Wisden Trophy they lost in the Caribbean two months ago. Gayle, West Indies captain, seemed to stipulate exactly where this rubber and Test cricket in general stood in his scheme of things by choosing to arrive in the country only on Monday, 48 hours before he was due to toss. He has joined a team that look well off the pace.
The history of the game is littered with examples of players who have arrived in the nick of time to play in a Test match. Two months ago, Ravi Bopara took 24 hours to fly from New Zealand after he was summoned to the Caribbean to join the senior England squad and four days after arriving, still suffering from jet lag, according to the scientific manuals, scored his maiden Test hundred.
Gayle, however, chose to go to the IPL instead of playing in any of the West Indies' three warm-up games here and decided to stay to play an extra game to boot. It would be just like him to go out and score a hundred today but when he was speaking in his ultra-cool fashion yesterday it was difficult to dismiss from the mind the mantra that if you fail to prepare then you will prepare to fail.
Strauss said: "I think the important thing is that Test cricket gets the attention it deserves and that means people prepare themselves properly for any Test they play. You don't want Test cricket to be devalued in any way, shape or form and there's a line there. Certainly we wouldn't want our players to arrive two days before and we're trying to avoid going too far over that line. I think that's an important thing." Ouch.
The line presumably was five days before, England's players having arrived back from South Africa on Friday. But Strauss offered a mild and veiled recrimination about that.
"Judging from what our guys have said about the IPL they have really experienced a huge number of new things and some of that has to have rubbed off on them," he said. "For the Twenty20 World Cup it's fantastic they were there. For this Test series it's important they put all that to the back of their mind and concentrate on what they're good at Test cricket-wise. That's a bit of a challenge for them clearly but they're all good experienced players and there's no reason they can't do that."
Gayle, naturally, was unfazed. "There was no way I would have avoided coming to England, it was a must to participate in the series," he said. "It's a privilege to lead the entire nation and it's a good bunch of lads to lead."
But, of course, he will lead them when he wants to lead them and not before. Gayle being the cool dude he is seemed not to recognise the fuss his late arrival had caused. Nor was he remotely perplexed that he had not seen or faced England's two new fast bowlers, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan. "Actually, I haven't even tasted Onions," he said.
It is to be hoped he does not make an exhibition of himself today.
First Test Pitch, weather and England fixtures
A tinge of green yesterday should not deceive anybody into thinking the surface will be anything than flat after the first morning and possibly getting better. Weather conditions, however, may persuade some to think otherwise.
Win it and bat.
Today: Warm, 20C, generally cloudy
Tomorrow: Light showers throughout the day, Max temp 16C
Friday: Mostly cloudy with sunny spells, 16C the high
Saturday: Overcast with sunny Intervals, 17C
Sunday: Broken cloud with sunny spells, possibility of rain.
*England's summer calendar
1st Test v West Indies (Today-10 May)
2nd Test v West Indies (14-18 May, Riverside)
3 ODIs v West Indies (May)
Twenty20 World Cup (5-21 June)
Five Tests v Australia (July-August)
ODI v Ireland (27 August)
7 ODIs v Australia (September)